Financial Resource Center


Incoming Freshman: Making a Final Choice During Admissions Season

by Ken O'Connor / March 18th, 2011

During late February and March, high-school seniors who have been persistently preparing will be able to conclude on their choice of college. That is because students that completed their FAFSA around Feb. 15 will have had the information forwarded to their choice of schools for review. This results in an "award letter" where the college acknowledges the financial needs of the family and makes an appropriate offer of financial aid and/or scholarship funding. This time of year is also the last chance for any

You may receive as many as ten of these award letters to compare.
meaningful medium-term college planning and school choice. Beyond now, open space at elite institutions is virtually gone and enrollment at flagship public schools will be maxed out. Procrastinating any longer will now hurt prospects for admission. College planning favors the early, and now is the time when final choices are made. Here are key criteria points a student can use when determining their "Final Choice."
  • Compare award letters: Schools begin sending award letters to their accepted students during this time of year. Students accepted by several schools will receive a barrage of paperwork. Don't worry. All the student needs to do is focus on what each award letter says. Because each college follows their own policies and procedures, there could be great variation in awards.
  • What is the total bill? Compare financial aid awarded to the outstanding balance due. This may require estimation as many schools do not yet have published tuition rates for 2011-2012. To estimate, use current year rates and add 4% to 8%, a normal year-to-year cost increase at many colleges. How much balance is due after all financial aid is paid is the critical final figure.
  • Know options for paying the remaining bill: How much money do you have saved for college? Hopefully there are some savings available to help cover the balance due. However, when this is not available, student loans become an option. How much in student loans are you prepared to take? Is the opportunity offered by the school worth the extra debt?
  • Use firm patience while reviewing options: Some schools will be able to respond very quickly to the FAFSA notification and provide an award letter very early. Other schools might simply take longer to process. There are two reasons why this process can slow down. First, there could be an overwhelming amount of interest in attending a school, requiring the process to take more time. Second, it could be that the school has poorly integrated technology solutions for administrative tasks. Be advised that if a college is having a hard time responding to you at all about award letters, they may not be able to handle their own student volume. This is a telltale sign that the future dealings with the school's administration will be a sloppy and painful waste of time. While being too judgmental of award letter delivery date is silly (What does one day or one week difference matter?) an extended delay is cause for concern. Contact your school during the last week of February and first week of March to get a status update on the account. Take note of how each school handles your query and how they respond.
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Ken O'Connor is a financial aid expert and the director of student advocacy at Learn more about credit union private student loans and college planning by visiting his blog.
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